Aggravated Electric Polluter Laments Cost of Saving Lives

American Electric Power, the nation’s biggest power company, announced today that it would meet updated clean air safeguards by retiring some of its coal plants, refitting others with pollution controls, and switching others to cleaner-burning natural gas.

Its nice to know that for all its whining, AEP is now saying it can meet more protective health safeguards that will reduce pollution and save lives. After all, each year that stronger health safeguards are delayed means tens of thousands of lives needlessly lost to air pollution, as NRDC and others recently pointed out.

Nevertheless, AEP is still making a case for putting off the live-saving pollution reductions, saying that doing so would cost $6 to $8 billion. And some in Congress like Kentucky Representative Ed Whitfield seem inclined to put the company’s bottom line ahead of the lives and health of Americans.

Before lawmakers get too worried about AEP’s profits, they should bear in mind that studies show that new jobs will be created as companies shift to cleaner power and need to build, install and retrofit equipment that will generate electricity without the nasty side-effects of thousands of premature deaths and respiratory disease.

In fact, the investor group Ceres recently issued a report showing that nearly 1.5 million jobs would be created as power companies reduce toxic and smog-forming pollution.

That's an important figure to weigh against AEP’s estimate that 600 jobs will be lost as they clean up their plants. But the economic hardship for those workers could be minimized. Instead of spending millions of dollars lobbying Congress to let them continue generating pollution that kills people and makes others sick, AEP should put that money and effort toward sitting down with labor unions, local communities, and public health and environmental interests to develop community benefit funds and worker retraining programs for communities that would be impacted by coal unit retirements.

More broadly, cleaning up dangerous air pollution from power plants will create major benefits for Americans in general. The Economic Policy Institute released a report last week examining the financial impacts of the tougher safeguards affecting power plants and found that the benefits of saving lives and preventing disease outweigh the costs of doing so by as much as $22 in benefits for each $1 companies like AEP spend.  

Yet AEP insists on pretending that they are being rushed with "unrealistic" deadlines that are forcing "premature" shut-downs of coal plants. Claiming the EPA isn't given them enough time is a serious breach of reality. As several major utility companies told the Wall Street Journal last November:

For over a decade, companies have recognized that the industry would need to install controls to comply with the act's air toxicity requirements, and the technology exists to cost effectively control such emissions, including mercury and acid gases.

If AEP finds itself in a jam now, maybe its because it has bet on a strategy of trying to dodge responsibility for cleaning up instead of figuring out how to do it with the least disruption to customers and workers. In which case, the company should be lamenting its own decision-making.